Director – Russell Crowe, Screenplay – Andrew Anastasios & Andrew Knight, Producers – Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger & Troy Lum, Photography – Andrew Lesnie, Music – David Hirschfelder, Additional Music – Ludovico Einaudi, Lisa Gerrard & Richard Tognelli, Visual Effects Supervisor – David Booth, Visual Effects – Rising Sun Pictures (Supervisor – Marc Varisco) & SWAT Team TWD, Special Effects Supervisor – Peter Stubbs, Makeup Effects Design – Jason Baird, Production Design – Christopher Kennedy. Production Company – Hopscotch Features/Fear of God Films
Russell Crowe (Joshua Connor), Olga Kurylenko (Ayshe), Yilmaz Erdogan (Major Hasan Bey), Dylan Georgiades (Orhan), Jai Courtney (Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes), Steve Bastoni (Omer), Cem Yilmaz (Sergeant Jemal), Ryan Corr (Arthur Connor), Salih Kalyon (Dr Ibrahim), Dan Wyllie (Captain Brindley), Jacqueline McKenzie (Eliza Connor), Damon Herriman (Father Mcintyre), Michael Dorman (Lieutenant Greeves), Benedict Hardy (Sergeant Dawson), Christopher Sommers (Sergeant Tucker), Isabel Lucas (Natalia), James Fraser (Edward Connor), Ben O’Toole (Henry Connor)
North Western Victoria, Australia, 1919. Farmer Joshua Connor is still mourning the deaths of his three sons all on the same day while fighting with the ANZAC forces against the Turks at Gallipoli during World War I four years earlier. His wife Eliza is unable to take the grief any longer and kills herself. Connor decides to fulfil her wishes and bring back the bodies of the boys. He travels to Turkey but the commanding British forces refuses him entry to the battlefield where they are still trying to identify corpses. Connor is able to sneak into the area where he uses his water divining abilities to locate the bodies. On returning to Istanbul, he learns from a Turkish major that one of his sons was taken prisoner and may still be alive. This takes Connor on a journey where he must defy the British authorities and travel across a Balkan peninsula that is rapidly turning into chaos as groups fight for control in the aftermath of the war.
Russell Crowe probably needs no introduction. New Zealand-born, Australian-raised, the world first became aware of his face in a dynamic performance as the skinhead in Romper Stomper (1992). Hollywood discovered Crowe soon after and he was making star turns in L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Insider (1999) to wide acclaim, before the sensation of Gladiator (2000). He was nominated for Academy awards for The Insider and A Beautiful Mind (2001), winning for Gladiator. Since then, in between a prickly hot-headed reputation in real life, Crowe has maintained a consistent body of work with strong appearances in a number of A-list dramatic films. Crowe’s ventures into material listed on this site have been sporadic – unless you want to count his turn as an android serial killer in the ridiculous Virtuosity (1995) – and include only a handful of works like the Magical Realist Rough Magic (1995), The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) and appearing as Jor-el in Man of Steel (2013). The Water Diviner represents Crowe’s first efforts behind the camera as director.
It feels like whenever an actor of some star status gets behind the camera, it is obligatory that he turn out some kind of historical epic – Kevin Costner with Dances with Wolves (1990), Mel Gibson with Braveheart (1995) – or at least takes up biographical/true story subject matter – Warren Beatty with Bugsy (1991), Robert Redford and Quiz Show (1994), Ron Howard and A Beautiful Mind, Ed Harris and Pollock (2004), George Clooney with Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005), Robert De Niro and The Good Shepherd (2006), Ben Affleck and Argo (2012). It is almost the sense of having conquered the box-office and won awards that actors turned directors need to prove that they are more than that and so choose subjects designed to appeal to the awards crowds. It is no different when Russell Crowe takes up the camera here.
The surprise about Crowe who has a reputation as a hot-headed hellraiser is that he when he takes up the camera he chooses such a traditional subject matter – The Water Diviner seems a film pitched to the same over-sixties crowds who are all reverentially lined up with poppies on their lapels for Australia’s Remembrance Day. The Battle of Gallipoli holds a peculiar nationalistic place in the Australian zeitgeist – somewhat akin to Pearl Harbor for the Americans but for the fact that it took place on a battlefield half a world away. Not unexpectedly, Crowe wheels out all the epic-sized filmmaking stuff for the occasion. There is the stunning photography, the richly detailed costuming and production design intended to place us there inside another era, the larger than life events, even epic-sized pieces of show-off dramatic flourish like the creations of sandstorms in the desert. The film moves predictably across its huge canvas and hits all the cues that appeal to these audiences – the struggle of the parent to be reunited with their child following the loss, the end that comes on a predictably upbeat romance. I didn’t dislike The Water Diviner; on the other hand, it never greatly moved me.
One of the surprises is how balanced an attitude Crowe takes towards the War. Both sides of the conflict are shown in a sympathetic light – there are few films of the much more cinematically depicted World War II era that shows the Germans in a decent and honourable light as the Turks are here. There is one potent scene where Russell Crowe turns on Turkish major Yilmaz Erdogan and accuses “you murdered my son,” to be calmly reminded “It was you who invaded us.” If there are any villains throughout, this comes in the direction of the pompous British. Or perhaps more mutedly Steve Bastoni as Olga Kurylenko’s brother-in-law who demands that she accept a marriage arrangement. The script is also notable for paying detail to the culture of Turkey and depicting the political turmoil of the region after the War. Yilmaz Erdogan is seen rallying to the cause of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, post-Imperial Turkey, and wound in are issues like the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and the war with Greece over Armenia. These are certainly not issues that the average Western film or historical epic has deigned to take up before, even if you feel that The Water Diviner only skates over the surface of them.
The Water Diviner is included here for some mildly Magical Realist elements. Russell Crowe’s character is the titular water diviner and we see him on several occasions using the metal rods to search for water. (Claims about the power of water divining – also known as dowsing – have been extensively scientifically tested and found to have no credible effect so must be regarded at best as a pseudo-science, at worst mystical woo, thus edging the film over into fantasy). Elsewhere, Crowe has precognitive dreams and becomes certain that his son is alive, while Olga Kurylenko’s character is said to be able to read futures in coffee grinds (where presumably she sees that she and Crowe will end up together). Oddly, these seem touches that are more suited to a light fluffy Magical Realist romance – look no further than Crowe’s Rough Magic – than a serious work about the Great War. When it comes to their actual portrayal, Crowe’s treatment as a director seems oddly flat. Apart from the opening scene where he locates and digs a well on his farm, all of these come with a conspicuous lack of magic or wonder in their depiction.